Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Love and Taxes"

Four years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself sitting next to Josh Kornbluth on a flight from Chicago to San Francisco. I recognized Josh as the protagonist in the playful independent comedy “Haiku Tunnel,” parts of which had been filmed in my neighborhood. 

I introduced myself as an (until-then) anonymous Facebook friend and asked Josh what he was working on. He mentioned a new movie called “Love and Taxes,” which he hoped to have wrapped up by tax day, 2012. 

As a devotee of the creative process who devours liner notes and DVD extras, I was full of questions about the new movie—specifically Josh’s collaborative dance with his brother Jacob, the director—but let it go. Josh was polite, but I could sense that he was eager to review the movie clips in the Mac resting on his upright tray.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing the finished project. I arrived 20 minutes before show time expecting to get a good seat, only to find a line from the box office half a block long. “Love and Taxes” was being shown on Josh’s home turf—the California Theater in Berkeley, where he has lived since 1997—at the Jewish Film Festival. The screening of this shoestring-budget, indie movie was an event.

The story begins in the office of Bob, a likable tax attorney who is as mild-mannered as his name suggests. As Bob’s secretary, Josh (a thinly fictionalized version of the real Josh Kornbluth) digs through obscure legal statutes from the early 20th Century in search of tax loopholes. The droll terms used for these tactics—the reverse double-dummy maneuver, the shotgun provision—and the enthusiasm with which he carries them out make the dry field of tax law seem fun and almost cause us to overlook the societal impact of corporate tax evasion.

In his free time, Josh performs a comic monologue at the Marsh, a small theater in the Mission District of San Francisco. During each performance, he riffs on the fact that he hasn’t filed his taxes in seven years, though his boss is a tax attorney. One day at work, Bob mentions that he’d seen the show and prods Josh to file. When Josh asks for help, Bob says, “I handle artificial persons. You’re a natural person,” and refers him elsewhere.

Josh sees a consultant who claims, in woo woo Bay Area spirit, to have a “holistic tax practice.” Josh doesn’t have a tax problem; he has a “tax symptom.” In psychoanalytic fashion, the consultant asks what his first memory of taxes is. 
A flashback takes us
Josh on the couch with his holistic tax consultant
Manhattan, circa 1964. Josh’s father, a committed communist, tells his young son that he won’t file his taxes because he refuses to fund wars and handouts to corporations. Josh’s father is strong and principled, wrapping his son in the protective gauze of the “Floating Socialist Republic of Kornbluthia.” He is also manifestly outside of the system, setting a precedent that Josh follows up to the moment he steps into the tax office.

From here the movie deftly pivots between fictional scenes that build the dramatic structure and humorous snippets from Josh’s (real) “Red Diaper Baby” concert monologue which fill out the context. 
Josh wrestles with whether or not to file and falls in love with Sara, a woman who has “complementary neuroses” and decidedly different views about the system. He receives a movie option on his stage show from an agent (played by Harry Shearer) and goes to Hollywood to write the screenplay, but feels like a fish out of water. He instead shoots the indie movie “Haiku Tunnel” with his younger brother in 18 days; it later premieres at Sundance. Josh files, but doesn’t pay his enormous tax bill. 

With his father’s anti-establishment words ringing in his ears, Josh visits the prominent D.C. tax lawyer Sheldon S. Cohen (played by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich), during the Bush Administration, and re-visits the question of whether or not he should pay taxes when so much of our money is being wasted on pre-emptive wars and tax cuts for millionaires. Sheldon’s answer, which is not what one would necessarily expect in such a cynical time, steers Josh in a new direction and explains the use of the word "love" in the film’s title.

Though the plot of “Love & Taxes” isn’t exactly incidental, the real enjoyment is in the moment-to-moment texture of the movie, driven by the main performance—Kornbluth’s
Sheldon Cohen: We're all in this together
warm, childlike, nervous energy is endearing—and the light, quirky vibe that doesn’t become precious or stylized, an affliction of too many independent movies. Though clearly on the side of economic justice, the movie makes its points with subtlety and humor, rather than ideological bludgeons. As one of Josh’s patrons says of his “Haiku Tunnel” monologue, “You take these chaotic life situations and make them streamlined.”

After the viewing, the filmmakers did a Q & A. It came out that during the seven years “Love & Taxes” was in production, the director (Josh’s brother Jacob) moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, married his roommate, had two children, started a non-profit, made another movie—the documentary “Inequality for All”—and slowly crafted this little movie that could by “scraping together” enough local actors to film scenes on weekends and holidays.

Jacob had left L.A. to create the movies he wanted to make, not with formulaic storyboards and dollar signs in his eyes but with love, care, and humanity, and it shows. “Love & Taxes” is a DIY production that was worth the wait.

Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")

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